Sky watchers are in for a double treat Sunday night, as we’ll be witnessing a fairly unusual confluence of a “supermoon” with the peak nights of the annual Perseid meteor shower.
You might remember we had a supermoon last month as well, on July 12. It occurs when the full moon is at its closest point to Earth, and it means the moon looks bigger and brighter than normal. We’ll also experience one more supermoon in September.
But Sunday night’s moon will be the “most super” of the three — the biggest and brightest — because that’s when the moon will have its closest encounter with Earth in all of 2014, according to EarthSky.org.
The supermoon’s appearance at the same time as the Perseid meteor shower means the meteor show will be less visible. The Perseids occur over about a month every year, from late July to late August, but they peak each year between Aug. 10 and Aug. 13.
When there’s not much moonlight, observers can see as many as 80 shooting stars each hour, according to USA Today. But since the supermoon will be even brighter than normal, only the brightest ones — perhaps 15 to 20 per hour — will be visible.
With all the talk about supermoons lately, some noted astronomers point out that many people may not notice much difference from a normal full moon.
Noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson takes it a step further. On a recent episode of his “StarTalk Radio” program, Tyson said, “The supermoon is a 16-inch pizza compared with a 15-inch pizza. It’s a slightly bigger moon; I ain’t using the adjective supermoon,” the IBTimes reports.
The image above compares the size of a normal full moon on the left, with that of a supermoon on the right. (Photo by Marco Langbroek via Wikimedia Commons)
The term “supermoon” isn’t a scientific one, either. The official astronomical term is a perigee full moon. The word perigee describes the moon’s closest point to Earth in a given month.
“Supermoon” was coined by an astrologer, Richard Nolle, some 30 years ago, but it has only become popular in the past few years, according to EarthSky.org.
If you want to check out the meteor shower this weekend, the best time is a few hours before dawn. But you might be able to see some as early as 10 p.m. Boston.com‘s meteorologist David Epstein suggests you lie flat on your back with your feet pointed northeast, and be patient. Meteors tend to come in clusters, so you might go 10 or 20 minutes without seeing any and then see several in a row.
As for the supermoon, your best bet is to go out right after it rises, which will be around 8 p.m. Sunday. It’ll be close to the horizon, and there’ll be less chance of cloud cover to obscure the view.